89.1 WEMU

Issues Of The Environment: The 'Nature Pill' And Its Benefits To Mental Well-Being

Jan 27, 2016

MaryCarol Hunter
Credit University of Michigan School of Natural Resources

In these cold, winter months, many of us want to stay indoors.  In this week's. 'Issues of the Environment,' MaryCarol Hunter, Associate Professor of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan, tells WEMU's David Fair why an "outdoor pill" has demonstrable benefits.


Overview

   *   The mental health benefits of time in the outdoors is well documented, but although doctors sometimes prescribe time in nature, it was not clear what the minimal “outdoor pill” would need to be.

  *   New research conducted by MaryCarol Hunter at the University of Michigan finds that just ten minutes of exposure to nature, two to three times per week, produces positive mental health benefits. Participants reported having significantly less stress, an improved ability to focus, and an increased satisfaction with their mood and energy levels. Also, benefits were greater in residential landscapes or small parks.

  *   MaryCarol’s research could impact city design, as her findings suggest it is important to incorporate open spaces and small parks in dense city settings to offset possible negative health impacts or reduced productivity in dense, tight urban landscapes.*  MaryCarol Hunter is an Associate Professor in the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources

New research on time outdoors

Intuitively, people know nature is good for them, and research backs that up. But what dosage is needed? Recent studies have explored the duration and frequency of time spent in nature that are necessary to yield health benefits. This research, funded by the TKF Foundation, shows that just 10 minutes of exposure two to three times per week produces mental-restoration benefits.

Short nature time-outs can happen in small, urban green spaces or one's backyard. One need not travel beyond the city to visit big parks or wild places. The research, conducted by MaryCarol Hunter and Dr. Marc Berman of the University of Chicago, was recently presented at the American Society of Landscape Architects annual meeting. 

Hunter's study involved having subjects immerse themselves in nature at least 2½ times a week for a minimum 10 minutes, and answer questions before and after about their mental well-being on a specially created mobile app. The digital entries were correlated with participants' cortisol levels in saliva, an indicator of stress. Looking at the data, Hunter found that just 10 minutes is effective in being in nature to receive its benefits. Participants reported having significantly less stress, an improved ability to focus, and an increased satisfaction with their mood and energy levels. Also, benefits were greater in residential landscapes or small parks.

In Berman's study, subjects were asked to take a 2.5-mile, 50-minute walk through either a dense, urban environment or an arboretum.  Afterward, they were given memory tests to measure their ability to concentrate or focus.  Results showed a noticeable difference in those who had walked through the arboretum; they had a 20 percent improvement in working memory over the other group. As confirmation, another study using photos of urban or nature scenes rather than walks yielded similar results.

However, there are still many questions to answer — for example, how senses other than sight might influence health benefits.  Both Hunter and Berman are working to discover the specific features of nature — such as naturalness, complexity, form, openness, access and safety — that create a sense of well-being and improve one's ability to concentrate.  Hunter's and Berman's research was published in Frontiers in Psychology and in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (Sept. 7, 2015).​ 

Short-term memory

In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other half took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than the first time. The ones who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.

Another similar study on depressed individuals also found that walks in nature boosted working memory much more than walks in urban environments (Source: Psychological Science, 2008Journal of Affective Disorders, 2013)

Motivation to take the “outdoor pill”

For behavioral modification to be effective in improving people's health they have to be willing to do it, just like taking medication.  MaryCarol spoke with me about how in addition to discovering the time and duration of the “outdoor pill”, her research methods revealed that people likely do not actually spend as much time engaged in outdoor enjoyment as they might think.  She also worked to find out what motivates people to get outside during their busy lives.

Her research subjects were volunteer participants in the Washtenaw County region, many of whom said they routinely get outside.  However, she ended up needing to repeat her research several times because of compliance.  It seemed that each time about 50% of her subjects would not even be able to get outside for 10 minutes 2-3 times per week.  Those who did not comply cited being to busy as the primary reason.

MaryCarol used a mobile app to conduct her research and participants logged their reactions to their outdoor excursions.  She said that she also discovered that people were more likely to continue to “take the pill” if they were invested somehow, similar to the way that paying a small monetary fee for a class tends to make more people attend than if the class is free.  She has been working with a graduate student to see how apps can be used to motivate people to stick with their outdoor commitments.

Ways to get outdoors in Washtenaw County during winter

MaryCarol Hunter lives and works in Ann Arbor, and she says for over ten years she has been thinking about what helps people to spend more time outside in the winter.  She says in the winter months, when the trees are bare and space is emptier, people can experience the sounds and other positive sensations in nature more acutely, even on short walks in urban or suburban open spaces. 

However, during winter even those who routinely spend the most time outside are more likely to stay indoors.  To get people out, she says it mostly comes down to having the right gear.  She says that having warm, dry footwear with great traction is the most critical item.  She says since she discovered Yak-Trax (ice cleats that are a flexible, corded, spiked gripping device that stretches over your shoes or boots) she has not slipped on snow or ice.  For over a decade she has been hiking on icy paths thanks to these and a similar cleat that works well on ice, but not sidewalks.

MaryCarol also said that having warm dry layer can help lead to positive experiences in winter weather. Tips from Huffington Post:

  *   Bottom Layer -- Wear something synthetic and wicking (like polyester) as your first layer, which will help pull moisture away from your body. 

  *   Middle Layer -- A fleece top and bottom will keep you warm.  

  *   Outer Layer -- Choose a wind and waterproof jacket and pants to protect you from the elements.

  *   Make sure to wear a hat and gloves. Neck warmers are also great for keeping everyone warm.

  *   Socks should be synthetic or wool. Cotton socks will not keep your feet warm if they get wet.

  *   Boots should be warm and waterproof.

  *   Don't forget sunglasses and sunscreen!  You can still get sunburned on a winter day. 

Places in Washtenaw County to get the "Outdoor Pill." 

Washtenaw  County Park trail maps

UM Active U program – Walking Maps

Also, here's a link to MaryCarol Hunter's public outreach website with access to popular articles and research papers on the nature pill and related topics.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu